Turkey Deep-Fryers in Condominiums: Crispy and Delicious but Bad for You Financially

Introduction

Deep fried turkey combines the deliciousness of a well-cooked turkey with the crispiness of deep-fried goodness.  Thanksgiving is one of the few opportunities many families have to enjoy a deep-fried turkey because of the time and attention needed to use a deep-fryer, especially one able to handle a ten pound turkey.  What can go wrong?

Thanksgiving is the peak day in the United States for home cooking fires, and frying foods increases the risk of a cooking fire.  Each year deep-fryer fires are responsible for five (5) deaths, 60 injuries, and more than $15 million in property damage.  The average number of fires on Thanksgiving day is double that for any other day.  Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina and Georgia “lead” the way with the most annual deep-fryer related insurance claims.  Turkey deep-fryers are not certified by Underwriter Laboratories and the National Fire Protection Association has taken the position that deep-fryers cannot be used safely by a consumer.  Anyone that chooses to deep-fry a turkey does so at their own risk.

This article briefly touches on some of the issues that may arise from the use of turkey deep-fryers and how these issues can uniquely impact a condominium in Michigan.

Background

1.    Risks Associated With Turkey Fryers and Ways to Minimize These Risks

First, the Federal Emergency Management Association (“FEMA”) identifies five (5) primary risks associated with turkey fryers:

  1. The fryer can tip over spilling a significant amount of hot oil
  2. Overfilling the cooking pot will cause hot oil to spill when the turkey is put in the pot, and a frozen turkey will cause oil to splatter
  3. Spilling any amount of oil on a hot burner can cause a fire
  4. Deep fryers without temperature controls can overheat and start a fire
  5. The surfaces of the cooking pot itself can get dangerously hot

Second, the National Fire Protection Association (“NFPA”) has taken the position that turkey deep-fryers which use cooking oil are not suitable for safe use by even a “well-informed and careful consumer.”  In describing the risks associated with deep-fryers, the NFPA states:

These turkey fryers use a substantial quantity of cooking oil at high temperatures and units currently available for home use pose a significant danger that hot oil will be released at some point during the cooking process. In addition, the burners that heat the oil can ignite spilled oil. The use of turkey fryers by consumers can lead to devastating burns, other injuries, and the destruction of property. NFPA urges those who prefer fried turkey to seek out professional establishments, such as grocery stores, specialty food retailers, and restaurants, for the preparation of the dish, or consider a new type of “oil-less” turkey fryer.”  (http://www.nfpa.org/public-education/by-topic/top-causes-of-fire/cooking/safety-with-cooking-equipment/turkey-fryers, accessed on November 23, 2016).

The NFPA’s position is consistent with that of Underwriter Laboratories (“UL”) which stated in 2010 that it does not certify any turkey fryers for home use and recommends that consumers dispose of their existing turkey fryers.

Third, assuming that Thanksgiving-day chefs are undaunted by the facts, statistics, and recommendations described above and still insist on deep-frying that turkey, there are several steps which can be taken to avoid a fire.

State Farm Mutual Insurance advises that those interested in using a deep-fryer take the following precautions:

  • Keep fryers a safe distance from decks, houses, and trees
  • Make sure turkey is thawed and dried before cooking
  • Do not operate a fryer in rain or snow
  • Place the fryer on a level surface and do not move it once in use
  • For a propane fryer, leave 2 feet between the tank and burner
  • Follow manufacturer’s instructions and avoid overfilling
  • Choose a smaller bird for frying (between 8 and 10 pounds)
  • Never leave the fryer unattended
  • Use a fryer with temperature controls and turn off the fryer if oil is smoking
  • Turn off burner while lowering turkey into fryer, turn it back on once turkey is in
  • Wear goggles for eyes, gloves for hands and arms, and keep a grease-rated fire extinguisher nearby
  • Do not fry a stuffed turkey and avoid water-based marinades
  • Once done, remove pot from burner, place on a level surface, cover, and let cool overnight before disposing
  • Opt for an oil-less fryer

In addition to these steps, Grand Rapids Fire Marshall Rik Dokter has advised the following:

  • Be aware of water. Water can turn into steam and turn oil into vapor which is easier to ignite
  • Keep oil at 350 degrees as oil can self-ignite at 435 degrees
  • Avoid using the deep fryer on combustibles such as a wooden deck

With respect to filling the deep-fryer, Dokter has suggested the following to avoid overfilling:

  • Put the bird in the fryer
  • Fill the fryer with water
  • Take the turkey out
  • Mark the water level
  • Empty the water
  • Fill the fryer with cooking oil up to the marked water level

With the above issues, it almost appears as if it cannot get any worse for those wanting to use a deep-fryer.  However, for those that live in a condominium, any hesitation to use a deep-fryer this Thanksgiving is well founded and its use should be avoided.

2.    Turkey Fryers and Condominiums: Why Should I Care?

Families and individuals that live in a condominium, even a site condominium, and the associations that administer such condominiums, should be aware of several unique issues that may arise due to the use or misuse of a deep-fryer.

First, a co-owner’s use of his or her unit and the condominium common elements is subject to the requirements imposed by the condominium’s master deed, bylaws, and properly adopted rules and regulations.  See MCL 559.165.  If a co-owner refuses or fails to comply with the master deed and bylaws, or the rules and regulations, any co-owner or the association can enforce the condominium documents against the offender.  See MCL 559.207 & 559.215.  Damages arising from a breach of the master deed or bylaws would most likely be considered damages arising from a breach of contract.  Accordingly, if the condominium documents preclude the use of a turkey fryer, then the use of the turkey fryer would most likely be a breach of the condominium documents, and any costs to that Association (or its insurer) resulting from a deep-fryer fire could be damages chargeable to the co-owner who breached (or allowed the breach) of the condominium documents.

Second, without reviewing the condominium documents in detail, co-owners using a deep-fryer are taking risks without fully understanding the consequences of those risks.  Unlike the owner of a subdivided lot, the owner of a condominium unit only owns the entirety of their unit, and an appurtenant share of the common elements of the condominium. MCL 559.161.  The common elements usually includes all of the land of the condominium, the building structures, decks, driveways, roofs, patios, and porches, among other things.  In addition, the condominium documents will allocate maintenance and insurance responsibility between the co-owner and the association for different aspects of the condominium, sometimes depending on ownership or exclusivity of use, but other times the allocation can appear more random –especially if the condominium documents are outdated.  In many instances, the co-owner will be responsible for insuring those portions of the condominium for which the co-owner bears maintenance responsibility.  However, without reviewing the co-owner’s insurance policy it may not be possible to determine whether the co-owner’s insurance will apply to the all portions of the condominium for which the co-owner bears maintenance responsibility.  In some instances the association may have purchased an insurance policy which contains a high deductible, even if the association bears the responsibility to procure insurance for an area to be maintained by the co-owner.  This could mean that the association has insurance that applies, but not before payment by the association (or even the co-owner) of a deductible in the tens of thousands of dollars.  In yet other instances, an association or its insurer may be able to pursue a co-owner for any costs incurred by an association resulting from a co-owner’s conduct – even if the co-owner is not negligent—and even if the damage is to a portion of the condominium for which the association bears maintenance and insurance responsibility.

Some of the problems that can arise from a deep-fryer fire can be summarized as follows:

  • Whether the use of the deep-fryer is a breach of the condominium documents
  • Whether the area damaged is the responsibility of the association or the co-owner
  • Which party bears insurance responsibility for the area damaged, and whether that party has actually obtained such insurance
  • Determining who is to pay the deductible for any insurance claim
  • In instances where both the association and the co-owner (or even multiple co-owners) have insurance that could apply, whose insurance is primary
  • If the association has insurance that applies, are they required to submit a claim or may they rely on the co-owner to pay for any damages
  • Is the co-owner liable for all damage resulting from the fire, even damage not covered by insurance or covered by the association or other co-owner’s insurance
  • Assuming that the association submits a claim and pays the deductible, will the insurer pursue any subrogation rights against the co-owner

In other words, without reviewing in detail the respective maintenance and insurance responsibilities between an association and its co-owners, a co-owner who chooses to use a deep-fryer places his or her financial well-being at significant risk, as the answers to many of the above-questions results in the co-owner facing liability for any resulting damages.

Third, from the Association’s perspective, there are several provisions in the condominium documents which could potentially be relied on to allocate liability for loss resulting from a fire caused by a co-owner to that co-owner, sometimes even if that co-owner was not negligent in causing the loss.  If the condominium documents bar the use of deep-fryer, then such use would be a breach by the co-owner of the condominium documents.  In such instance, the co-owner would most likely be responsible for the resulting damage even if the co-owner was not otherwise at fault.  This allows the association to expressly place the responsibility for pursuing the party at fault (assuming some other party other than the co-owner was at fault) on the co-owner rather than the association.  Even if the condominium documents do not preclude the use of a deep-fryer, many master deeds prevent a co-owner from using the common elements “in a manner which will interfere with or impair the rights of any other Co-owner in the use or enjoyment of his/her Unit or the common elements.”  If a co-owner uses a deep-fryer on common elements, then the use of the common elements for cooking the deep-fryer could potentially interfere with or impair the rights of other co-owners to use the common elements (especially if damaged by fire).  Accordingly, an association could potentially rely on this provision to impose liability on a co-owner who utilizes the common elements to use a deep-fryer.  Lastly, some condominium bylaws allow the association to require a co-owner to pay for any costs or damages which arise out of the co-owner’s conduct – even if the co-owner was not negligent.  Under this type of provision, the association could potentially seek to impose any costs or damages arising from a deep-fryer fire against the co-owner (and unit) responsible for the fire.

Summary

This article does not attempt to argue against the good taste of a well-cooked deep-fried turkey.  The risks associated with the use of a deep-fryer, however, are also well-known, and at least two prominent bodies (UL and the NFPA) have suggested that there is no use of a deep-fryer by a consumer which would be considered safe.  In addition, the unique ownership, maintenance, and insurance responsibilities which exist because of the relationship between co-owners and a co-owner and their condominium association impose an additional layer of risk and consequence which also cautions against the use of a deep-fryer in a condominium.  Accordingly, condominium co-owners should be aware of these risks and consequences before making a determination as to how to cook their turkeys.  In case of accident with a deep-fryer, the results could potentially be financially devastating.  Further, an association seeking to minimize risks and the potential for these issues to arise should consider precluding the use of deep fryers in their condominium documents, assuming they have not yet done so.

Matthew W. Heron is an attorney with the law firm of Cummings, McClorey, Davis & Acho, P.L.C. where he focuses his practice on dispute avoidance, condominium law, commercial litigation, commercial real estate, land use, large contractual disputes, and title litigation. He has extensive litigation and trial experience in state and federal courts involving commercial litigation issues and real estate matters.  He can be reached at (734) 261-2400 or mheron@cmda-law.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter at @mwheron75.